Michael Jackson’s Thriller, the album, had spent the previous year at the top of the charts before the John Landis-directed video for the title track debuted in 1983. Two previous videos, for massive hits “Billie Jean” and “Beat It,” kept him on constant rotation on the fledgling MTV and other networks. It seemed that the “naïve, preternaturally gifted 25-year-old” couldn’t get any more internationally famous, but then, as Nancy Griffin writes at Vanity Fair, “it was the ‘Thriller’ video that pushed Jackson over the top, consolidating his position as the King of Pop.”
His naïveté was matched by a shrewd, calculating ambition, and the story of the “Thriller” video highlights both. After seeing An American Werewolf in London, he chose Landis to make a video that would goose Thriller’s sales as they started to fall. Landis, the profane, irreverent director of The Blues Brothers and Animal House, may have seemed an odd choice for the wholesome pop star, who prefaced his zombie spoof with a pious disclaimer about his “strong personal convictions.” (Shortly before the video’s release, Jackson, under pressure from the Jehovah’s Witnesses, asked Landis to destroy it.)
It turns out, however, that when Jackson called Landis, he hadn’t seen any of the director’s other films (and Landis hadn’t heard the song). It was Landis who suggested that the video be turned into a 14-minute short film, a choice that set the bar high for the form ever since. As he told Billboard’s John Branca on the video’s 35th anniversary, just days ago:
Music videos at that time were always just needle drop. Some were pretty good, but most were not, and they were commercials. Michael’s such a huge star that I said, “Maybe I can bring back the theatrical short.” I pitched him the idea, and he totally went for it. Michael was extremely enthusiastic because he wanted to make movies.
Before “Thriller” even aired, it was a high-profile event. “Marlon Brando, Fred Astaire, Rock Hudson and Jackie Kennedy Onassis all turned up on set,” notes Phil Hebblethwaite, “and Eddie Murphy, Prince and Diana Ross were spotted at the private premier.” After the video premiered on MTV at midnight on December 2nd, it sealed the network’s “reputation as a new cultural force; dissolved racial barriers in the station’s treatment of music,” and “helped create a market for VHS rentals and sales.”
“Thriller” turned the making of music videos into a “proper industry,” says Brian Grant, the British director who made videos for Tina Turner’s “Private Dancer” and Whitney Houston’s “I Wanna Dance with Somebody.” It “launched a dance craze,” Karen Bliss writes at Billboard, and “a red-jacket fashion favorite.” It won three MTV Awards, two American Music Awards, and a Grammy. In 2009, it became the first music video inducted into the Library of Congress’s National Film Registry, designated as a national treasure.
But as we look back on unprecedented historic impact “Thriller” had on pop culture, we must also look at its continued impact in the present. It remains the most popular music video of all time. “’Thriller’ is thriving on YouTube,” Griffin writes. Celebrities and ordinary people, professional and amateur dance troops, Filipino prisoners and Norwegian soldiers, routinely perform its dance moves for the camera all over the world. An entire genre of how-to videos teach viewers how to do the “Thriller” dance. This past September, it became the first music video released in IMAX 3D.
The video received the documentary treatment in Jerry Kramer’s Making Michael Jackson’s Thriller, which premiered at the Venice Film Festival last year. Landis tells Branca one story that did not make it into Kramer’s movie. After Quincy Jones refused him permission to remix the song, he and Jackson walked into the studio at night, took the tapes, duplicated them and returned them. The song that appears in the video “is very different than the record,” says Landis. “I only used a third of the lyrics. It’s a 3-minute song; in the film, it plays for 11 minutes.” Jones and engineer Bruce Swedien didn’t even notice, says the director, they were so enthralled with what they saw onscreen.
What continues to drive “Thriller’s” popularity? The combination of good clean fun and perfectly-pitched camp horror—Vincent Price voiceover and all? The virtuoso dance moves, zombie choreography, and irresistibly sleek 80s fashions? All of the above, of course, and also some indefinable sum of all these parts, a perfect combination of cinematic depth and shiny pop culture surfaces that set the benchmark for the format for three-and-a-half decades.